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Hiding in plain sight: the biggest opportunity marketers ignore?

Joe Crump, managing director, POSSIBLE New York
Joe Crump, managing director, POSSIBLE New York

People with disabilities have spent their lives being missed by marketers.

Quick show of hands: how many of you have a PowerPoint deck on your hard drive that maps out the customer segments your brand or product or client serves? I can picture slide after slide of colorful bar charts and Venn diagrams charmingly labeled "Kids and Kale," "Need for Speed," "Prime Time Tim," and so on.

OK, for extra points, how many of you have more than a dozen similar decks you’ve accumulated over the years?

Excellent. Pretty much all of you.

And now for the bonus round: how many of those decks have "People with Disabilities" as a segment you’re targeting?

Zero? I thought so. And now I’d like to make the case that this may likely be the biggest miss – or the most epic discovery – of your career.

The global community of People with Disabilities (PWD) is currently estimated at 1.3 billion people. And yet for almost all marketers, brands, designers and focus groups developing new products and services across all categories, this enormously powerful segment is invisible. Yes, this is your lucky day: you have just discovered that there is a completely untouched, under-served, and massively influential segment roughly the size of the population of China. And they’re hiding in plain sight.

Imagine the captive opportunity represented by a community of people who have spent their lives without companies or brands acknowledging their existence, much less creating products or advertising designed by or for them. Imagine that community’s potential for passionate loyalty to brands that get this right.

In case you feel a pang of politically correct squeamishness about the prospect of thinking of PWD as a "segment" or a "target" or a business opportunity, here’s a test: would you feel that way about the LGBTQ community? Women? Or everyone’s favorite bulls-eye, Millennials? Probably not.

People with disabilities have spent their lives either completely ignored by marketers on one hand or lionized on the other. What they desperately want and need is normalization, and exactly what we all do: respect. They want brands that create and market products designed by them and for them – and companies that acknowledge their presence and their value.

Here’s a high-level tour of the data:

  • 1 in 5 people worldwide has a disability that creates challenges for dexterity, cognition or sensory issues.

  • In the US, there are 56.7 million PWD, a number larger than the Hispanic market.

  • Collectively, this group represents an annual disposable income of $1 trillion globally and $544 million in the US.

  • When you include friends and family of PWD, it adds another 2.3 billion consumers controlling an incremental $6.9 trillion in disposable income.

  • In the US, the consumer spending power of PWD exceeds that of the Black, Latino, and LGBTQ markets combined.

  • In the US apparel segment alone, it’s estimated that the business opportunity is between $5-7 billion.  

The size and business potential of this market gets even bigger – growing far beyond the community of PWD – when you ponder the concept of Universal Design. In essence, products, services, and brands employing Universal Design are better, more accessible, and more appealing not just for PWD but for everyone.

OXO Good Grips is the quintessential case study for Universal Design. The company was born in the late 80s when Sam Farber, the retired founder of Copco (an enameled cookware company), was watching his wife Betsey peeling apples for a tart.  Betsey had arthritis, so gripping the conventional peeler was laborious and painful. But her difficulty performing a mundane household task hatched a priceless epiphany for Farber: kitchen devices should be as functional as they were comfortable and excellent not just for cooks with grip issues, but for all cooks.

Farber got to work and his innovative potato peelers debuted in 1990 at $6, compared with about $2 for a typical peeler— but they proved a massive hit with consumers. And OXO steadily expanded the principles of Universal Design and minimalist chic throughout every nook and cranny of the kitchen. And the rest is history.

The moral of the OXO story is clear. Microsoft has taken note and recently announced its launch of an adjustable Xbox controller for PWD. But how many other stories like this have yet to be written by you?

Universal Design = Good Design – seven key principles

So how can you shape your products, services, and experiences to be truly accessible for everyone? As developed by the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University, the seven key principles of Universal Design are:

1. Equitable use
The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.

  • It provides the same means of use for all users: identical whenever possible; equivalent when not.

  • It avoids segregating or stigmatizing any users.

  • Provisions for privacy, security, and safety are equally available to all users.

  • The design is appealing to all users.

2. Flexibility in use
The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.

  • It provides choice in methods of use.

  • It accommodates right or left-handed access and use.

  • It facilitates the user’s accuracy and precision.

  • It provides adaptability to the user’s pace.

3. Simple and intuitive use
Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.

  • It eliminates unnecessary complexity.

  • It is consistent with user expectations and intuition.

  • It accommodates a wide range of literacy and language skills.

  • It arranges information consistent with its importance.

  • It provides effective prompting and feedback during and after task completion.

4. Perceptible information
The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.

  • It uses different modes (pictorial, verbal, tactile) for redundant presentation of essential information.

  • It provides adequate contrast between essential information and its surroundings.

  • It maximizes "legibility" of essential information.

  • It differentiates elements in ways that can be described (i.e., make it easy to give instructions or directions).

  • It provides compatibility with a variety of techniques or devices used by people with sensory limitations.

5. Tolerance for Error
The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.

  • It arranges elements to minimize hazards and errors: most used elements, most accessible; hazardous elements eliminated, isolated, or shielded.

  • It provides warnings of hazards and errors.

  • It provides fail-safe features.

  • It discourages unconscious action in tasks that require vigilance.

6. Low physical effort
The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.

  • It allows the user to maintain a neutral body position

  • It uses reasonable operating forces.

  • It minimizes repetitive actions.

  • It minimizes sustained physical effort.

7. Size and Space for Approach and Use
Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use, regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility.

  • It provides a clear line of sight to important elements for any seated or standing user.

  • It makes reaching to all components comfortable for any seated or standing user.

  • It accommodates variations in hand and grip size.

  • It provides adequate space for the use of assistive devices or personal assistance.

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